Social Media and Privacy: Best Practices for Managing Your Personal and Professional Identities

Submitted by Brett on Wed, 04/28/2010 - 8:55am

Andrew Heller, andrewhheller.com

Here's the situation: midnight is fast approaching and the server is still down. After working on the problem for hours with your manager, you're still scratching your head over how to solve the problem. As the night wears on, business conversation slowly turns into personal conversation. While you're applying a patch and a window reads "90 minutes remaining" questions such as "So, go to the game last night?" or "How are the kids doing?" are bound to come up.

But then you're asked, "Hey, are you on Facebook?" Now, the warning sirens should go off like a Red Alert on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise: "What should I say? Should I accept the friend request?" And, of course, the thought that sends shivers down your spine: "What if my manager sees that picture?"

The blur between our personal and professional identities on social networking sites may seem all too obvious, but the issue is becoming more prevalent as we use sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn as professional networking tools. You could possibly accept a friend request from a business partner who would raise an eyebrow at the religious beliefs or political views displayed on your profile.

Can we completely separate our personal life from our professional life online? The answer: it's a huge gray area.

So what can we do? In the wild west of social networking and online privacy perhaps the best thing one can do is simply be prepared.

Check out these best practices to help protect both yourself and your organization.

Know the Risks

The ramifications of "oversharing" or using misjudgment online can be serious and lead to employment termination. In August of 2009, the following exchange occurred between an employee known only as "Lindsay" and her boss, "Brian":

[Lindsay]
"OMG [oh my God] I HATE MY JOB!!" "My boss is... always making me do s**t stuff just to p**s me off!!... "

[Brian]
"Hi Lindsay, I guess you forgot about adding me on here?" [He continued with] "... that s**t stuff' is called your 'job', you know, what I pay you to do. But the fact that you seem to be able to f**k up the simplest of tasks might contribute to how you feel about it. And lastly, you also seem to have forgotten that you have 2 weeks left on your 6 month trial period. Don't bother coming in tomorrow."

Insulting your boss with such colorful language isn't the only thing we need to be careful of. Employees are being terminated or pressured to resign due to social media instances ranging from criticizing a customer's hometown, surfing Facebook while calling in sick, and posting pictures of drinking alcohol at social events.

And, of course, if your organization has a disclaimer about revealing private donor / client information or trade secrets, be careful not to divulge this information online, either intentionally or accidently.

Privacy Settings

Whatever social media site you use -- Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn -- read the privacy settings on the website. Then read them again. These can be your life-lines. Here are a few tips that can help:

Facebook

  • Create lists to organize personal and professional contacts to control what they can or cannot see.
  • Know how to untag yourself from embarrassing photos.
  • Watch for being a fan of groups that might offend someone.
  • Be aware that participating in quizzes will reveal information about you to others.
  • Learn how to block someone from seeing anything about you.

Twitter

  • Tweet responsibly. Avoid "oversharing". For example, try to avoid tweeting about a screaming match you're having with a significant other. But if your organization is global, sharing information about a recent travel adventure could be helpful.
  • Find a connection. Use common themes that everyone can identify with. Twitter isn't as much about sharing your daily happenings, but more about what you have in common with others.
  • Post a Disclaimer. If want to separate your personal and professional tweets as much as possible use a disclaimer such as the following, "This is a personal Twitter feed. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer."

LinkedIn

Though the purpose of LinkedIn is for professional networking, some personal information may inadvertently seep in. Try to include information in your profile and activities that focus only on your professional endeavors.

  • Public profile. Be aware of the information made available on your public profile, as this can be visible to everyone who searches for you, not just your "private" connections.
  • Personal Information. Under the "Additional Information" section, be aware of any personal tidbits you might not want professional contacts to be aware of, such as some interests, website links, groups, birthdate, and marital status.
  • Twitter and WordPress Feeds. LinkedIn allows you to automatically feed tweets from your twitter account to your profile page. If you want to avoid personal tweets being posted, add the hastag #in and only those tweets will appear on your status.

    On a similar note you can feed your WordPress blogs into your LinkedIn profile page as well with the WordPress application. Filter our personal blog entries by using the tag "linkedin" in the settings of your WordPress blog post.

Develop a Social Media Guideline for Your Organization

Just as organizations have rules on surfing websites and using email for personal use, your organization must have a guideline in place for usage of social media sites. This can serve as a protective measure for your organization but perhaps more importantly can help to prevent harmful disclosures from employees online. Topics can include:

  1. Introduction to social media. Employees who do not actively use social networking sites may not be familiar with the intricacies and complexities Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.
  2. Know your audience. Who will be viewing your wall posts, reading your tweets or searching your LinkedIn profile? Donors, potential donors, customers, business partners, vendors could all be actively reading your posts.
  3. Use good judgment. Do not post comments that can be interpreted as demeaning, offensive, or that reflect negatively on yourself or the organization you represent.
  4. Protect confidential and proprietary information. Employees who share confidential or proprietary information are at risk of losing their job and possibly becoming a defendant in a civil lawsuit
  5. Internal social media sites. Create an internal social media site and take action when unflattering posts appear. This may prevent that scathing comment from ever reaching Facebook.

In the end, be mindful of your online presence. Step back and think about what you're about to post online.

One of my favorite quotes from Confucius reads, "Think thrice before acting". I often wonder if Confucius were alive today, in this world of social media, what he would advise us to do? Perhaps it would be something like this: think three times before uploading that photo on Facebook!